WXXI AM News

Holocaust refugees in Oswego for 75th anniversary of their arrival

Aug 5, 2019

The Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum in Oswego commemorates how Fort Ontario once served as the home for 986 mostly Jewish refugees during World War II.
Credit PAYNE HORNING / WRVO NEWS (FILE PHOTO)

Monday is the 75th anniversary of when 982 mostly Jewish European refugees arrived in Oswego. President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought them to the decommissioned Fort Ontario in 1944, where they lived for nearly two years to escape war-torn Europe.

To commemorate this historical moment, the city is hosting a celebration Monday that may be the last of its kind.

Nineteen former refugees and their families are returning for a reunion to what was their first home in America. They plan to gather at several local cemeteries where some of the refugees who died at the Fort are buried and later eat lunch in the same spot where the group had its first meal after arriving in Oswego 75 years ago.

Credit CREDIT BEIT HATFUTSUT MUSEUM / SAFE HAVEN HOLOCAUST REFUGEE MUSEUM

George DeMass, who has met many of the former refugees while serving on the board of the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Museum in Oswego, says this place is sacred to many.

"One of the former refugees in Baltimore - she's still convinced that Oswego is the best place on Earth," DeMass said. "She said they received us when we were nothing and when we had nothing."

Members of the public are invited to attend a program at Fort Ontario at 2:00 p.m. where some of the refugees plan to speak about their experiences.

DeMass says due to the age of many of the surviving refugees, this may be the last reunion in Oswego. But the work continues to tell their stories.

George DeMass speaks outside the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum
Credit CREDIT PAYNE HORNING / WRVO NEWS (FILE PHOTO)

The federal government is currently undertaking a study to determine whether Fort Ontario and Safe Haven should be made into a national park.

Two years ago,  a WXXI-TV production, Safe Haven, marked its 30th anniversary. It was written and produced by Paul Lewis. In 1987 the documentary received a Peabody Award, with jurors congratulating the production team for “making a particularly timely statement about the undercurrent of racism and bigotry which afflict all governments.” 

You can see the documentary and an interview with Paul Lewis on the WXXI website at this link